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Senior scientists meet to tackle foot-and-mouth threat

25 October 2010

BBSRC-funded institute hosts international policy and research conference.

Foot-and-Mouth disease (FMD) is an infectious disease that affects many valuable livestock animals such as cattle, sheep and pigs as well as goats and deer. The virus that causes the disease is highly infectious, and staying one step ahead of the agent is important to animal welfare, and essential for maintaining the FMD-free status that countries need to export animals and animal products - industries worth millions and sometimes billions to developed economies.

Many countries strive to remain free of foot-and-mouth disease. Image: IAH

Many countries strive to remain free of foot-and-mouth disease.
Image: IAH

Control of the virus is coordinated at the Pirbright Laboratory of the Institute for Animal Health (IAH), an institute of BBSRC, where the Annual Meeting for the network of Foot and Mouth Disease Reference Laboratories was held from Monday 4 to Wednesday 6 October. The meeting brought together senior representatives from both the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as well as scientists from FMD reference laboratories from around the world.

"The meeting was a huge success," says senior virologist and Head of World Reference Laboratory for FMD (WRLFMD) Dr Jef Hammond. "FMD is a high profile disease globally. It is important to those countries free of the disease due to high costs of outbreaks, and to countries endemic for the disease due to the high impact on livelihoods and control costs."

Jef Hammond is head of the World Reference Laboratory Foot and Mouth Disease. Image: IAH

Jef Hammond is head of the World Reference Laboratory Foot and Mouth Disease. Image: IAH

Various new control strategies were discussed, including new ways of bringing together the global information on FMD activity, and new ways of comparing field samples with available vaccines to line up a good match.

Some new policy decisions were taken; it was agreed that Pirbright would provide essential training for international laboratory staff and that more efforts would go into collaborative projects.

Policy discussions also centred around how the OIE and FAO best work together to control FMD on a global scale; how to provide incentives to countries where FMD is endemic to control FMD which would then reduce the global burden and risk of FMD to all countries; and what vaccines should be held in vaccine banks to provide protection against outbreaks. However, Hammond says that none of these issues have easy answers and many of the discussions are confidential due to country and regional politics.

Computer-generated image of the foot-and-mouth virus. Image: IAH

Computer-generated image of the foot-and-mouth virus. Image: IAH

In terms of research progress, Hammond says that the development of next-generation FMD vaccines is high on the list of priorities. "Hand in hand with this will be the parallel development of bespoke companion diagnostic tests with DIVA capability." This means that vaccinated animals can be differentiated from infected ones - a key capability used in the control of many livestock diseases.

FMD is the most infectious disease of livestock known and can be transmitted by the movement of infected animals and animal products, or by people and vehicles that have come into contact with infected animals.

The disease causes production losses through reduced milk yield, reduced weight gain and infected animals cannot be used for traction e.g. pulling a plough, as common in many smallholder farms in the developing world. Controlling outbreaks is expensive, and trade losses from export restrictions are barriers to development and poverty reduction in countries that have yet to conquer the disease.

Taking the lead role against the disease, the WRLFMD at Pirbright provides Defra and the UK Chief Veterinary Officer with regular advice and liaises with international governments on all aspects of research and control policy.


Arran Frood

tel: 01793 413329